One year later: Mayor Nirenberg, Judge Wolff reflect on anniversary of evacuees arriving in San Antonio

“We couldn’t see the ground. We see the ground now.”

SAN ANTONIO – It’s an anniversary that won’t soon be forgotten for San Antonio and Bexar County.

As of Feb. 7, 2021, it has now been one year since the first evacuees from Wuhan, China, arrived into the Alamo City.

More than 2,100 lives have been lost to COVID-19 in Bexar County, and all of us are suffering from varying degrees of lifestyle, education and economic setbacks.

The first date to remember is February 7, 2020. That is the day the first group of evacuees was flown into San Antonio by the military in an effort to quarantine those who were living in the epicenter of the novel coronavirus.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he remembers where he was when he first got the news.

“I was in Congressman Hurd’s office with members of our delegation discussing with him what we could expect from the evacuation missions of Americans from Wuhan and cruise ships,” Nirenberg said.

The reaction to the military’s plan is what County Judge Nelson Wolff remembers.

“When they first came, we knew there was a problem. We didn’t know how big a problem it was going to be, but we did know we didn’t want them in our community,” said Wolff.

The fear that the coronavirus would eventually put us all at risk was realized weeks later, when the quarantine broke. But that quarantine effort by the military did leak into the community.

“I do remember when they mistakenly released someone out and we were very upset about it. In fact, I think it was our first emergency order, I believe, prohibiting that,” Wolff said.

At the time, North Star Mall was shut down for cleaning and the city waited to learn the impact.

As it turned out, community spread was inevitable, but the mixed messaging was not. Managing what the public needed to know was confusing with conflicting laws, dueling news conferences, and social media panics.

Toilet paper shortages, long lines at food banks and scanty COVID-19 testing were among the new realities that set in by March and April 2020.

“I think one thing we didn’t know then but we found out real quick, was that there was going to be such a discoordinated response to this when it comes to federal, state and then ultimately local levels,” Nirenberg said.

Judge Wolff concedes that some of those in charge were not helping early on.

“Even the CDC did not recommend face masks when it came out. And we felt that’s very strange,” Wolff said.

The takeaways in the shadow of the year for city and county leaders include pride at the teamwork that was exhibited between the private sector and public sector.

“We had public hospital, private hospital, and STRAC (South Texas Regional Advisory Council) employees coordinating where the patients would go. Tremendous effort was made, all of them, and responded to it,” said Wolff, who is particularly proud of the job of University Hospital System’s response for testing and vaccinations.

The mayor’s takeaways include a nod to a different sort of shortage every city has seen this past year.

“Perhaps if we knew this 10 years ago, we would have been doing and we’re doing now is encouraging people to go into the health care. We need registered nurses. We need respiratory therapists. We need people who are in the health care field, which are going to become even more demand not only to respond to pandemics like this, but to keep the health of our community at the forefront of what we do,” he said.

Medically, one area where we reacted well was our set up of the first mass vaccination sites. Getting here is a road riddled with lessons learned, particularly the human toll this would take.

“The hardest part of this whole ordeal, certainly when we started, was just not knowing where the ground was. We were crash landing a plane and we couldn’t see the ground. We see the ground now,” said Nirenberg.

Judge Wolff is already looking at the next threat.

“We know that there’s an iteration of the COVID in Brazil, South Africa, United Kingdom that spreads 50% faster, maybe more deadly than what we have now. And we know it’s in the United States, but that’s something we’re still having to deal with, and that’s why we still need to be so careful, maybe even more careful now than we have been in the past,” he said.

Watch the full interview below:

Read also:

Timeline: Every major COVID-19 development in San Antonio since the start of the pandemic

Americans evacuated from Wuhan China to arrive at Lackland this week, CDC says

Anniversary marks day American evacuees from Wuhan, China arrived at JBSA- Lackland

About the Author

Ursula Pari has been a staple of television news in Texas at KSAT 12 News since 1996 and a veteran of broadcast journalism for more than 30 years.

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